Occasionally, I get a question from a graduating architectural student asking for my thoughts on choosing a firm. These are some of my thoughts on the matter.
When I was in college, working toward my architectural degree, I took a class in my fourth year called "Practicum." It involved spending several afternoons each week working (unpaid) at a local architectural firm to see first hand how that firm worked. I think there were half a dozen or so of us in the class – each assigned to a different firm for the duration of the semester. Every other week, we would all meet up at one of the assigned firms for a quick tour followed by a question & answer session. As you might expect, it was an eye-opening experience. Each of the participating firms was unique; as were the architects within them. They all had their strengths and their weaknesses.
At the end of the semester, we had a wrap-up session in the classroom to discuss what we learned and/or didn’t learn. We also talked about applying it to our futures. This was basically an open discussion session between professor and students. Most all of what we talked about that day has faded from my memory, but I do remember someone asking, "How do I choose a firm to work for?" The professor’s answer was really quite simple. He advised us to find a place in the world in which we wanted to live and then find a job there. His rationale was that if you aren’t happy where you live, you will likely not be happy where you work.
Obviously there are other things to consider as well. Things like compensation, benefits, the kind(s) of work the firm does, and so on are important parts of the decision. But ultimately choosing a place to live is probably the most important. So, do that first and then move on to the rest.
Choosing Architectural Firms
Once you've decided on where you want to live, then I'd recommend you research the firms in the area. Clearly, you can do this prior to or concurrently with your search for a preferred locale. In fact, that might be a key part of your decision process. For example, if you want to work for Frank Gehry, you are likely going to be living in the Los Angeles area. If you want to work at SOM, you've got more cities to choose from.
At the time I graduated, I wasn't interested in working for a famous name architect or architectural firm (the so-called "starchitects" of the world). I targeted Portland, Oregon as the city I wanted to live in and started mailing out resumes to firms I found in the Yellowpages. That was twenty years ago. Today it's much easier to research firms. I never saw an architect's website until I created one for my first firm. Today, most architects have webpages. You can simply go to google to search for architects and see the work they do. If you have a specific project type that you want to do (government, industrial, schools, libraries, multi-family housing, single-family housing, etc.), you can find architects who specialize in them. When you see projects that interest you, you can send your resume to the company that handled their design. In short, if you like what you see, you might enjoy working for that company.
If you want to focus on residential design, you might find houzz.com and porch.com to be useful resources. However, there are some things to keep in mind. The majority of projects you see on those sites are single-family homes. If you want to work on larger projects, you'll likely have to look elsewhere. If that's the case, try architizer.com instead (hint: Architizer is also good for searching non-residential projects & architects as well). Also, with these sites, not every individual or company that is listed is licensed to practice architecture. If you have any intention of enrolling in NCARB with the ultimate goal of taking the Architectural Registration Exams, you'll want to be sure that the firm(s) you apply to are actually licensed. You can verify licensed firms and individuals via your State's Architectural Board. A list of the State Boards can be found at NCARB.
In the broadest sense, that’s how I would look for an architectural firm in which to work at. Pick your area and then your favorite firms within it. In a future post, I'll delve into finer things like compensation, benefits, and responsibilities.